Let’s say you’re in the most fulfilling relationship on earth. Regardless of your compatibility, at some point your opinions will diverge on a sensitive topic and one or both of you will be hurt; the sting might linger for days. Why is it that after oodles of bliss, a single harsh word can cut like a knife?
Criticism cuts deep because, well, it cuts deep. “Criticism taps into our biggest unconscious insecurities,” says Ilene Kastel, MA, LCPC. in Chicago’s loop district. “Deep down we’re in need of acceptance and approval. We want to be loveable, especially to those that we care most about.”
As an expression of judgment and disapproval, criticism from someone we’ve let in close can feel like an attack. That sharp emotional response, says Ms. Kastel, is what leaves a mark.
Writer Sophia Dembling thinks another piece of the picture can be found in the realm of cognitive psychology. Applying something called the Zeigarnik Effect – which states that we have a better recall of inconclusive events – Ms. Dembling hypothesizes that criticism is just the type of unfinished business our brains hold onto.
If Ms. Dembling’s interpretation has merit, this is good news for couples everywhere. It means that by working to understand the conditions surrounding an unpleasant episode, couples can process the event, close it and move on.
However, like most things in life, this is easier said than done. Ms.Kastel offers some guidelines to practice before, during and after an argument to take the edge off and ease the transition from anger to empathy.
- Be familiar with your sensitivities. “Know your vulnerabilities and what causes you to be defensive,” advises Ms. Kastel. “Knowing what insecurities are triggered when you feel criticized will increase your ability to manage your reaction.”
- Cool off before you speak – and this goes for both parties. “Take some deep breaths and take time to think about your reaction,” says Ms. Kastel. “Remember that your partner may not mean to hurt you … and reacting out of anger is a lose-lose situation.” What you perceive as offensive may be legitimate feedback you could use. So first listen, then respond.
- Make a plan. After a dispute, talk about how you can handle a tender subject the next time around without raising anyone’s hackles. When you agree to work as a team you establish joint responsibility for the outcome. This is a great time to practice your “I” statements, says Ms. Kastel – they soften the blow by focusing on the behavior, rather than the person.
The silver lining to getting hurt is that it gives you a chance to learn about yourself, your lover and your relationship. Arguments don’t have to be divisive; with patience and effort they can actually bring you closer. “All couples fight, but what’s important is how they manage their arguments and express feelings,” says Ms. Kastel.
No matter where your relationship ranks – either among the world’s best or in need of serious improvement – criticism is a window of opportunity. It can point you directly to where difficulties lie, and handled with care can be a great tool for strengthening your relationship.
In what ways have you grown from someone else’s disapproval? Do you and your partner have a system for working through disagreements without fighting?
For more resources or support on this topic, feel free contact Ms. Kastel here.
photocredit: Sura Nualpradid